White Dew on Grass
“If you are going out to play, take your little sister with you,” my mother would occasionally say as I was hastily running out the door after school. When this happened, the sad trombone would play in my head and my exciting plans to explore the rice paddy fields had to be aborted. I couldn’t take my little sister to the fields because the bugs scared her and the water was too dangerous.
But even though I couldn’t indulge in some of the activities that I loved, I still enjoyed playing with my little sister who is only two years my junior. She was skinny and sickly when she was little and didn’t have many friends because she spent a lot of time at home. We often played together until she became healthier and started making her own friends.
In September, when the colorful Mirabilis flowers that adorn the warm summer evenings start to develop seeds, we would go to the flower border to collect their seeds. The black seeds, which resemble small grenades, carry white powder in the middle. We would gather the powder by cracking the seeds and then paint each other’s faces white, pretending to be putting on make-up. In Japanese, Mirabilis flowers are called “oshiroi bana,” which means “white make-up flower.”
I also frequently took my little sister to play games with my friends as “omiso”. Omiso means miso paste, and it was the name that Japanese children used to describe little ones that participated in games without having the proper rules applied to them. When my sister came along as “omisho”–this is the way she said the word because she couldn’t pronounce it properly– my friends that didn’t have younger siblings enjoyed being her temporary elder, so it worked out perfectly for everyone.
One day, I played hide-and-seek at the bus terminal with my friends. My little sister came along as omiso, but there were two problems in bringing her to play this particular game. The first problem was that she would cry whenever the seeker would find her because she was so timid. The second problem was that she would not come out at the end of each game because she became scared. So we would often stop looking for her because we didn’t want to make her cry. And on that day, as you might expect, I completely forgot about her after playing several games because she had not come out.
I jollily went home without my sister for dinner and only remembered when my mother asked in a sharp tone, “where is your sister?” as I walked into the apartment. In a hurry, I ran back and found her still hiding behind a bunch of tall grass that was her favorite hiding spot. As soon as she saw me, she burst out crying. None of the tricks that I had accumulated over the years to make her stop crying worked. As we walked home with my sister crying at the top of her lungs, every neighbor that we passed asked me what had happened to her.
My family loves to talk about this incident as “the day Ai forgot her sister” when we gather for dinner and reminisce about our old days in Chiba. As I was writing this essay, I discovered that omiso is a term that originated as an abbreviation of the word misokasu, which means miso dregs that are a good-for-nothing leftover that remain in the strainer after miso is melted in soup.
I had always assumed that it simply meant miso paste, so I was surprised by the derogatory nature of the term’s origin. But omiso continues to have an adorable ring to my ears, probably, because I remember the voice of a little girl that used to say, “Ai-chan, can I come as omisho please, take me along to play,” as I’m about to walk out of the door.